musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

Archive for September, 2014

Show Time in Taunggyi!

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During my recent trip to Myanmar, while I was based in the Shan State town of Nyaungshwe, I took a group of kids from Tat Ein village on a trip to visit the huge Htam Sam Cave. The last time I took a group from the village on a trip, nearly two years ago, there were about 60 people, which required two large “light trucks.” This time around the group swelled to over 90 people — students, novice monks, teachers, and a few parents — creating the need for a third truck. Not a problem; let’s hit the road!

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On the way back from the cave (more on that site in a future post) we stopped in Taunggyi to see one of the big temples in town and also visit the Eastern Amusement Park on the outskirts of town. This park has gardens, a swinging bridge, a small zoo, and plenty of games for the kids. It’s always a big hit with the youngsters, so I make it a point to bring any group that I take on a trip in the area to this park.

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This time around, however, the park had a surprise for us! One of the managers told me that because we had such a large group he wanted to put on a special “stage show” for us. Or at least that’s what I thought he was telling me in Burmese. It turned out the there was indeed a show … but instead of watching a show, we would be the show!

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Basically, the park staff organized some games and contests and stuck all the kids, including the novice monks, on a big stage at one end of the park. There were contests for singing and dancing, plus things like connecting straws together (to see who could assemble the longest piece within the allotted time). As you can imagine, the kids had a blast, both participating and watching the craziness. Plus, all of the winners earned prizes of some sort.

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The singing part of the show was comprised of female students. They were instructed to try and hold one note for as long as they could. Predictably, the results were pretty darn amusing!

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The highlight, though, was probably the dancing contest, which was limited to male students … and one old guy in the group. I don’t know who he was — probably someone’s father, or maybe he just hitched a ride — but he was, by far, the best dancer in the bunch. One little short, pudgy kid also had some good moves, and a taller, skinny kid had the best facial expressions (he had this look of utter astonishment, like: “I can’t believe I’m up on this stage and doing this!”), but the old guy clearly was the best dancer. I mean, he had those trademark Saturday Night Fever and Soul Train moves all wrapped in one package. He was so much fun to watch that I’d gladly pay to see him perform again. And the kids thought he was a riot.

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Seeing the caves that day was very interesting, and the trip to the temple was another highlight, especially for the monks in the group, but the park visit was clearly the high point of the afternoon. Mother Nature also cooperated and we didn’t have any rain at all, until the very last leg of the trip on the road back into Nyaungshwe. All in all, another amazing day in Myanmar.

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Musical Road Fuel

Music inspires me and motivates me. It’s not a cliché to say that it also makes me move, seeing as how I will frequently get up out of my seat and do a jig of some sort when a particular song strikes me. Whether I’m at work or at home, I always have music playing. The only time I turn on the TV might be when my Thai friends from the motorcycle taxi stand come to visit. Otherwise, it’s all music, all the time. And whenI take an MP3 player on trips, the music provides a memorable soundtrack to my travels.

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Here are some of the albums (and that’s what I play, entire albums, not a random bunch of singles) that I listened to during my recent trip to Myanmar. It’s a seemingly weird mix of musical styles, but it suits my travelling mood most well. Whether I was cycling around the chaotic streets of Mandalay, gliding past the lush green rice fields around Nyaungshwe, or exploring old ruins in Bagan, these were the albums and songs that kept me moving and grooving.

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Lynn Lynn – Iron Butterfly

One of my favorite albums in recent years is Sin Za Ba by the Burmese singer and guitarist known as Lynn Lynn (I’ve also seen his name written in English as Lin Lin and Linn Linn). No, I don’t understand all of the lyrics but the emotions that his songs exude are magical. Whenever I’m in Myanmar, I play either this album or Sin Za Ba every single day!

Peter Bruntnell – Peter and the Murder of Crows

The Jackson 5 – Anthology

J. Geils Band – Blow Your Face Out

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Various Artists – Guitars of the Golden Triangle: Folk & Pop Music of Myanmar

The music on this compilation CD is described as “Folk and Pop Music of Myanmar (Burma)” on the cover, but in the liner notes that come with the CD there is a much better description, calling it an “unbelievable collection of garage and psychedelic rock, raw folk, blues ballads, and country-western styled music … a product of Shan and Pa-O musicians hailing from the early 1970s.” I’m not sure if “unbelievable” is the best term to describe this music, but it sure is a lot of fun to listen to. If the lively strains of “A Girl Among Girls” by Lashio Thein Aung doesn’t get you out of your seat and dancing on the nearest table, then all hope is lost! Seriously, the songs on here are a blast, all of them exuding an irrepressible zest and vitality … the same sort of spirit that you’ll find amongst the people in Shan State.

The Hollies – The Best Of

Iron Cross – Acoustics

Stevie Ray Vaughan – Couldn’t Stand the Weather

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Whiskeytown – Strangers Almanac (Deluxe Edition)

This was the band that Ryan Adams cut his teeth with back in the 1990s and this album remains one of his best efforts. This deluxe 2-CD edition includes some amazing bonus tracks and cover versions. The frenetic pace of “10 Seconds” gets my bike pumping in a faster gear every time.

Tinariwen – Emmaar

Lee Scratch Perry – Arkology

Various Artists – Moody Bluegrass

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Various Artists – Miami Sound: Rare Funk & Soul

Wonderful collection of 1970s rare soul treats, including songs by unheralded artists such as Timmy Thomas, Gwen McCrae, Clarence Reid (aka Blowfly), and Little Beaver. Song that gets me singing: “I Get Lifted” by George McCrae.

The Marshall Tucker Band – The Best Of

Toots and the Maytals – Reggae Legends

Tinted Windows – Tinted Windows

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Charlie Daniels Band – Fire On The Mountain

Another underrated band that recorded consistently good albums in the 1970s, this one includes the coon-ass classic “Trudy.”

Cut Copy – Free Your Mind

Dan Fogelberg – Captured Angel

Velvet Crush – A Single Odessey

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NRBQ – Kick Me Hard

One of America’s greatest bands — ever! — and it qualifies as a crime that they still aren’t better known or appreciated. But ain’t that the way of the world! Fun and fantastic, this album is packed with musical treats such as “Wacky Tobacky” and “Hot Biscuits and Sweet Marie.”

Tonio K. – Amerika

Tom Robinson Band – The Gold Collection

Leroy Hutson – Lucky Fellow: The Best Of

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America – Here & Now

A very nice comeback album for an unfairly maligned group. Sweet harmonies and songs with hooks; what’s not to like? The 2-CD set includes a brilliant cover of Nada Surf’s “Always Love.” Sing it again!

Wet Willie – Drippin’ Wet

Empire of the Sun – Ice on the Dune

Steely Dan – Countdown to Ecstasy

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Gordon Lightfoot – Gord’s Gold

This one is always a trip staple for me. I make it a point to have “Carefree Highway” playing whenever I’m on the road to Mandalay — or at least the drive in from the airport!

Bruce Hornsby – Greatest Radio Hits

Ronnie Lane – Kuschty Rye: The Singles

Shoes – Present Tense/Tongue Twister

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Spinners – Spinners

This still ranks as one of the greatest soul albums of the 1970s. Plenty of hits and no filler. “One of Kind (Love Affair)” gets me every time.

Lynyrd Skynyrd – Skynyrd’s First: The Complete Muscle Shoals Album

Linkin Park – Minutes to Midnight

Dwight Yoakam – 3 Pears

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Translator – No Time Like Now

Great 1983 album by the underrated San Francisco rock band. The reissued CD includes bonus tracks such as the blissful instrumental “Cry For a Shadow.”

Dawes – Stories Don’t End

A Flock of Seagulls – The Best Of

The Stylistics – The Very Best Of

 

Good Friends Forever

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Looking over some of the photos that I took in Myanmar recently, I was struck by the many shots of friends posing together. They might be longtime friends, new acquaintances, classmates, monks from the same monastery, kids living in the same neighborhood, or employees at the same restaurant. But there is some sort of common bond that links them: people experiencing the ups and downs of life together, treasuring the good times, good friends forever.

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Picturing Myanmar

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People frequently ask me why I keep returning to visit Myanmar so often. I’ve been visiting the country two or three time per year for most of the past decade, and haven’t become bored yet. This is why: the people!

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There are so many truly beautiful places to see — from glittering pagodas and stunning ruins to scenic lakes and mountains — around Myanmar, but for me the people are the real draw.

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Here are a few — just a few — photos that I took of some of these memorable people during my trip last month to this splendid country.

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Sharp-Dressed Monk

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At the monastery in Shan State’s Tat Ein village there is one novice monk who always stands out from the crowd, at least from my photographic viewpoint. I don’t know this boy’s name, but he’s been at the monastery for several years already, and he’s one of my favorites to capture on film. Oops, I guess we can’t say “film” any longer. In any case, he’s a pleasure to photograph every time I visit the monastery. He’s also a student at the primary school in the village.

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This novice monk certainly isn’t the tallest in the bunch, nor the oldest, or the most talkative. But when photo time comes around, he will almost always painstakingly wrap his robe with care, getting those folds just right, and sometimes adding an extra layer of garment or a towel of some sort. I mean, this kid really makes an effort to look the part of the studious, diligent young monk. While the other young monks will act goofy or ham it up, or even let their robes slip, this novice usually shows a more serious side and is meticulous about how he looks. Cue the ZZ Top song and change the lyrics to: “Sharp-Dressed Monk!”

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Return of the Laughing Monks

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They’re back! Those irrepressible, sometimes goofy and always friendly novice monks from Shan State’s Tat Ein village, located not far from the shores of scenic Inle Lake.

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Once again, I paid multiple visits to the monastery during my stay in nearby Nyaungshwe. We also managed to sneak in a field trip one day; I rented three trucks and took 90 children, teachers and most of the novice monks to a few sights around Shan State. Stories and photos from that adventure will be forthcoming, but for today, I’ll just post a few (and rest assured, this is only a very small sample of the shots I took at the monastery) photos of the novice monks. Honestly, these kids delight me every time I visit the monastery. Charming, and sometimes pretty darn funny too!

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I’ve noticed, however, that my name has changed a bit over the years. Maybe it’s like a game of Chinese Whispers or something. The monks a few years back all learned my name and it’s been passed on to successive bands of brothers in the passing years. As a result, “Mister Don” now sounds something more like “Mystery Dog.” Hmm … I’ll take it!

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Walter Sylvest: 1941-2014

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Walter Sylvest, one of my very best friends, passed away this week at a nursing home in Bangkok. He had been hospitalized since falling ill in October last year and never fully regained the ability to speak or recognize visitors Even though he was 72 years-old when the illness struck, he had still been quite active and teaching full-time at the Horizon International School in Mandalay. Previous to that, he taught at various international schools in Bangkok such as St. Stephens and Bangkok Prep.

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I first met Walter during a trip to Thailand in 1992. He moved there the following year and I finally made the jump in 1996. On the surface, we didn’t have much in common, plus he was much older than I, and yet, we somehow bonded. I was a voracious book reader, but I don’t think that he ever read anything more than the daily newspaper. I liked to listen to music when I was at home, while he preferred watching action movies and “professional” wrestling matches on TV. Seriously, he was fanatical about his wrestling.

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But we were both single men — loners, if you will — living in Bangkok. No wives, or ex-wives, or children to be responsible for, so that was something that at least we had in common. For us, the great common denominators were food and travel. We usually got together for dinner at least once a week, and ended up taking many trips together to places around Thailand, and eventually to Laos and Myanmar.

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One of the things that I most admired about Walter was the way that he was able to re-invent himself and change careers and places of residence so many times. After working as a teacher in the Alabama public school system for many years, he moved to Los Angeles in the early 1980s and became an actor, appearing in TV shows and commercials, as well as bit roles in a few movies. He had a reoccurring role in the critically acclaimed TV series Frank’s Place, about a popular New Orleans restaurant. Despite rave reviews, the show didn’t strike it big with audiences and was cancelled after one season. After visiting Thailand in 1992, Walter moved to the kingdom the following year and resurrected his teaching career. He taught for another dozen years, and even did some substitute teaching after he officially retired. But then he came back for yet one more teaching gig at the school in Mandalay about five years ago. When I saw him there in September last year, he was zooming around town on his motorcycle, making plans to bake more treats for his students, and planning a visit to Bangkok. About a month later he was hospitalized, never again to return to Mandalay.

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Walter often “blamed” me for introducing him to Myanmar, a country that he ended up falling in love with, as I also did. Not only did he accompany me on a few trips to Myanmar, he eventually moved to Mandalay and started teaching again in his late sixties. “I’d be having a nice, peaceful retirement if it weren’t for you,” he’d heckle me good-naturedly. “Yeah,” I’d reply, “and you’d be bored out of your mind.”

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Walter was not an easy person to get to know. He had a hard façade that was tough to crack. If you didn’t know him well, you might be put off by his gruff, abrupt nature. He wasn’t a “people person” and didn’t like to socialize with other teachers at the schools where he taught. But if you got on his good side, he proved to be a loyal and dependable friend. Just last year, after one of the boys that I knew on 90th Street in Mandalay drowned, Walter helped arrange for me to make a donation to the boy’s family. He would do anything for a friend.

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He combined his love for teaching and his love for cooking by often baking cookies and cakes and taking them to school to give to students, teachers, and administrative staff. He would also occasionally invite some friends or teachers to his apartment and cook dinner for them. When we cleaned out his apartment in Mandalay earlier this year, we found dozens of cookbooks and hundreds of recipe pages downloaded off the Internet.

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I was informed about his passing on Tuesday morning by the doctor who was taking care of him. She sent me a text message and followed that up with a phone call. Later that morning the hospital sent also me an e-mail, and then a woman from the US Embassy called to make sure that I had received the news. I did my part in getting the word out by sending additional e-mails to friends and colleagues who had known Walter or worked with him. His cousin back in Alabama (Walter’s home state) had already been contacted, so I notified one of his childhood friends, a woman who had known Walter for over 60 years. I also called a man who had lived in the same apartment complex with Walter in Bangkok. They were not close friends, but this guy had taken the time to visit Walter when he was in hospital, and was always asking for updates on his condition, so I thought that he should know too.

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But I wasn’t done yet. I sent e-mails to mutual friends in Myanmar, in both Bagan and Mandalay, people at teashops, restaurants, schools, and hotels. They all remembered Walter and had been asking about him, so I wanted to make sure that they knew. Two teachers at Walter’s school sent me very nice recollections of their time with Walter, and I received very touching notes from Ma Khin Thida and Kyaw Zin Tun at the Hotel Queen in Mandalay. I think those notes made me cry the most.

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Walter was not a man you would forget if you met him. One mutual friend, who had taught with Walter at a school in Bangkok, described him as “like someone from a David Lynch film.” That made me laugh! Indeed, Walter was an unforgettable “character” in the truest sense of the word. With his thick southern accent, occasional malapropisms, and sometimes gruff demeanor he could appear unfriendly or demanding. And sometimes he really was. You certainly did not want to get on his bad side or feel his wrath! But he was also a considerate, polite, and very giving person too. I saw this generous side to him so many times, especially during trips to neighboring countries. He would visit orphanages in Laos and buy clothes for the children, even sponsoring a few kids in school. At poor rural schools he would buy pencils and notebooks for the students. At a very rundown teashop in Mandalay he bought shoes and shirts for the entire staff of boys — about 15 kids — who were working there. And he performed such acts of kindness more than a handful of times.

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I’ve spent the past few days thinking about our times together; the trips and dinners, and good memories. Whenever we got together Walter would always say something, or offer an observation, that invariably made me laugh. My favorite restaurant in Mandalay, Aye Myit Tar, was one that he loved to dub “the greasy spoon” due to its oily curries. It wasn’t his favorite place to eat, but he would graciously accompany me there anytime I wanted to visit. If nothing else, he was always entertained by the enthusiastic and friendly crew of waiters there. In fact, just a week ago, while dining at that same restaurant, two of the waiters asked about him.

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Walter was truly one of a kind. I’m really, really going to miss his friendship.

 

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